Watchdog calls on NYPD to tag body camera locations

The company that makes the cameras already offers the feature – the police just don’t use it.

An NYPD officer wearing a department-issued body camera.

An NYPD officer wearing a department-issued body camera. AP/Shutterstock

The NYPD’s uniformed patrol officers have been wearing department-issued body cameras for nearly a year now, and the results are in: Footage from the cameras is a massive help to the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, the agency tasked with investigating complaints of police misconduct like excessive use of force or the use of offensive language. 

But a new report from the CCRB also highlights some of the ways in which the NYPD’s use of body cameras is lagging, including the fact that the NYPD isn’t currently taking advantage of GPS geotagging capabilities that the cameras have – a feature that the CCRB says would aid in their investigations by allowing them to access camera footage more quickly.

Footage from body cameras is compelling evidence that helps the CCRB come to a decision about whether a civilian’s complaint about an NYPD interaction can be substantiated, is unfounded or can be exonerated. But the CCRB is facing a growing backlog of requests for camera footage, and says that the time it takes the NYPD to respond to these requests has grown. According to the report set to be released on Thursday, between the end of 2018 and the end of July, 2019, the time it took for the NYPD to respond to footage requests grew from an average of 20 business days to an average of 42 business days.

The CCRB also says that camera footage is often redacted, which the NYPD does for reasons including minors or sensitive digital records being caught on camera. But the NYPD has over the last year increasingly been returning redacted footage to the CCRB, and on multiple occasions hasn’t provided an explanation for why it was redacted. 

An agreement reached between the NYPD and the CCRB at the end of last year is expected to address some of those issues. The NYPD and the CCRB signed on to a memorandum of understanding that the two agencies will set up a secure facility to search and review police body camera footage, working together to locate any footage that is relevant to a CCRB complaint. The CCRB said they expect to have a temporary location for that facility up and running by this June.

But what’s not clear is whether the NYPD will adopt other recommendations in the report – including the recommendation to incorporate GPS tagging in its body camera footage. The CCRB says that including location data in police body camera footage would more easily allow the agency to search through footage using search terms based on location or GPS coordinates, and that that geotagging capability is currently available on the body cameras made by the law enforcement technology company Axon, which supplies the NYPD’s cameras.

One issue the CCRB deals with in obtaining footage from the NYPD is the problem of “false negatives,” which are instances when the CCRB requests body camera footage and the NYPD responds that there is no applicable footage, but footage is later identified. This might happen because there’s only a limited number of ways that the NYPD categorizes or tags its footage – including with descriptors based on the type of encounter, like “arrest” or “summons.” Currently, when the CCRB submits footage requests, it details all available information about the incident, like date, time and officers involved, to try to make it easier for the NYPD to find relevant footage. 

That’s why the CCRB wants to add geotagging to the body camera footage. The agency says that being able to search for footage with location tags – for example, “Times Square” – or with the GPS coordinates of officers, will make it easier to identify footage for a given case and cut down on instances of false negatives. 

While other police departments across the country have made use of these GPS capabilities – and other tech upgrades like body cams that live stream to other officers if one officer needs assistance – the CCRB said that the NYPD has so far relied on officers to self-report their locations. A spokeswoman for the NYPD confirmed that the department doesn’t use those GPS features currently, but disputed the notion that doing so could be done without extra costs to the department. “There may be a lack of understanding of the features and functionality in regards to particularly the GPS technology,” she said. “None of what has been recommended is currently possible or without significant cost.” 

The report also recommends incorporating an Axon feature called “Axon Signal,” which automatically activates all nearby Axon cameras when a cop triggers their Taser or draws a gun. The feature could presumably solve another problem noted in the CCRB’s report – that body cameras are sometimes easily dislodged, turned off in the course of an incident or are not turned on. And, if the NYPD did incorporate this feature and therefore had a larger trove of footage for a given incident, using the cameras’ geotagging capabilities could also help narrow down relevant footage to a CCRB investigation. The Axon Signal feature, however, may come with extra costs for the department, the CCRB said.

While the report includes suggestions like these about how the NYPD could incorporate more high-tech capabilities of body cameras, it also sheds light on some interesting ways in which the NYPD is already using the cameras. For example, the CCRB reports that officers are trained to notify other officers when their cameras are recording, using non-verbal cues like gesturing to where their camera is placed, as well as verbal cues, including “I’m hot” or “I went Hollywood.” The NYPD said that this kind of signaling doesn’t undermine the use of body cameras, and that there are practical reasons for alerting other officers that a camera is recording, like potentially de-escalating an encounter.

As the technical capabilities of body cameras evolve – including features like live streaming and face detection – departments including the NYPD will likely face critical decisions about how to balance accountability and privacy. 

Civil liberties groups have testified before the City Council that police body cameras could pose a greater risk to privacy than the accountability and transparency purposes they’re meant to serve. “Without adequate safeguards, body cameras also have the potential to significantly increase scrutiny of already over-policed communities,” Laura Hecht-Felella, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, testified last November. “Particularly when used in conjunction with other technologies, body cameras could conceivably function as mass surveillance devices.”

Hecht-Felella said Wednesday that the public ought to have the chance to weigh in on whether the NYPD should be able to incorporate new types of data like location data. She noted that some advocates might see geotagging as helpful in pinpointing the location of incidents, but that for others it might invoke more privacy concerns. “The more data that's collected, I think it magnifies some of the concerns and underscores why it's so important for there to be some kind of public oversight,” she said.